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Published Oct. 2, 2014

As details emerged about the Liberian man diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, local medical authorities continued preparing health workers for the possibility of a similar event in the Tampa Bay area, while reassuring the public.

Dr. Doug Holt, director of the Hillsborough County Health Department, said having to treat an Ebola patient here would be an "unlikely event.'' Still, he has been discussing plans for several months with the local medical community, and the health department has set up a 24-hour hot line for medical personnel. He said precautions would be similar to those for other dangerous infectious diseases, such as the viral respiratory disease SARS.

On Wednesday, the sister of the Dallas patient told reporters that, though her brother went to a hospital Friday and said he had told the staff he had been in Liberia, he was initially sent home. He was admitted two days later and diagnosed with Ebola, which is epidemic in Liberia and several other African nations.

Locally, health workers have been trained to ask whether patients with symptoms suggesting Ebola have recently been in one of the affected nations, said Dr. Mark Vaaler, a vice president for physician services within the BayCare Health System, the area's largest provider.

If a patient with fever and other symptoms who had been in an affected nation in the past 21 days came to a BayCare hospital, "we would handle (it) just like we would handle any case that was a potentially infectious disease,'' he said. "You would be triaged and immediately taken back to a (negative-airflow) room and we would use what are called universal precautions,'' meaning patient and health care workers all would wear protective gowns, gloves and masks.

Hospitals generally wouldn't send the patient to another facility, he said, because transportation poses risks. "It's probably best to keep people in place."

Health workers are trained to deal with suspected Ebola just as they would any serious infectious disease or disaster.

"We're just trying to assure everybody that we are being hypervigilant, and feel very confident we can both identify and treat people if they show up with the virus,'' Vaaler said.

At a news conference Wednesday at Tampa General Hospital, Holt also noted the importance of geography. Because the early signs of Ebola are similar to flu, a patient would be put in isolation only because of recent travels.

"If you have been to one of those (African) countries, and it's within 21 days of being there, and you develop a fever, we want to be able to evaluate you in a very safe environment for you and anyone else,'' said Holt, who is also director of the infectious disease division at USF Health's Morsani College of Medicine.

Peggy Thompson, director of infection prevention at Tampa General, showed reporters an impermeable Tyvek body suit that caregivers would wear to treat a patient with a confirmed case of Ebola. Any fluid-resistant protective gear is effective because Ebola is spread by contact with bodily fluids. Still, she said, the extra reassurance could help allay caregivers' personal fears so they can concentrate fully on the patient.

Even for people who understand how the disease is spread and how to contain it, Ebola might stand in a class all its own.

"It's something you've never personally dealt with, so the fear of the unknown does heighten the emotional response somewhat,'' Vaaler said.

Times Staff Writer Charlotte Sutton contributed to this report.